The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Sarah Bernhardt, 1844-1923

Nationality: French
Date of Birth: 1844
Place of Birth: Paris
Date of Death: 1923
Place of Death:


Sarah Bernhardt, née Henrietta Rosine Bernard, the daughter of Edouard Bernard, a young law student from Le Havre, and Judith van Hard, a Dutch girl who later became a fashionable courtesan, was an actress, theatrical manager, painter and sculptor. She had a son by the Belgian prince Henri de Ligne in 1864.


Bernhardt was brought up by a Breton nurse, and educated at Auteuil and then at the convent of Grandchamps, Versailles. She studied acting at the Conservatoire, Paris, from 1859 to 1863, winning a number of prizes. She was taken on by the Comédie Française in 1863 but left following a quarrel. It was at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris from 1866 to 1872 that she made her name as an actress. She was taken back on by the Comédie Française in 1872 and was the star of their first London visit in 1879. Following another quarrel, she left and established her own troupe in 1880, designing her own clothes and working closely with her stage designers. She made a number of American tours in the 1880s and founded the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in 1900, where she acted for the rest of her life.

Bernhard, who studied sculpture under Mathieu Meusnier and Franchesci, exhibited at the Paris Salon throughout the 1870s and 1880s, as well as showing her work at the William Russell Galleries in London in 1879, the Union League Club in New York in 1880, the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

Bernhard was friends with a number of famous artists including Georges Clairin and Louise Abbéma. In the 1890s she was the principal patron of Alphonse Mucha and René Lalique.

Bernhard was also friendly with JW, and in 1887 invited him to attend the wedding of her son (#05591). According to W. Graham Robertson, 'Once, during a visit to Paris, JW had begun a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, but I fancy it went little beyond the first sitting: Sarah had arrived late, had failed to keep appointments, and had been unable or unwilling to give the artist the allegiance that he required from a sitter.' She was on tour in America in 1891 and Europe in 1892, but returned for an extremely successful season in Paris in 1893. Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt (YMSM 399) could have been painted at this time but there is no other record of it.

Study of a Female Figure (YMSM 81) was once owned by the Galerie Barbazanges, Hodebert and Cie in Paris and described as a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. However, it is unlikely to be. At JW's bankruptcy sale r.: Maud Franklin; v.: Study of Maud Franklin (M.693) was described as a portrait of 'Sarah Bernhardt, seated, holding a book' and was bought by Oscar Wilde for five guineas. It was probably drawn by JW c. 1878 but certainly not of her, although Wilde had managed to get Bernhardt to sign it and to write that it was very like her.


Bernhardt, Sarah, My Double Life, London, 1907; Bernhardt, Sarah., The Art of the Theatre, New York, 1925; Lesberg, Sandy (ed.), The Diaries of Sarah Bernhardt, New York, 1977.

Taylor, Tom, Times, 16 June 1879; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908; Taranow, Gerda, Sarah Bernhard: The Art Within the Legend, Princeton, 1972; Richardson, Joanna, Sarah Bernhardt and Her World, London, 1977; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980; Fizdale, Robert and Arthur Gold, The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhard, London, 1992; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995; Gaze, Delia (ed.), Dictionary of Woman Artists, 2 vols, London, 1997.